In the beginning … were words
Also at the recent 2014 Playwriting Festival at the NSW Writers’ Centre I spoke in a session In the beginning was the word, along with Kit Brookman and Katie Pollock, chaired by fellow 7-ONer Hilary Bell. This is roughly what I said:
Beginnings are easy—begin anywhere.
But middles are hard: developing the idea, sustaining a writing career.
My first career plan was to be an explorer. Mrs Bailey suggested I think about becoming a geography teacher, but even at the age of 9 I knew I didn’t want to be any kind of teacher.
The university I went to as an undergraduate didn’t recognise anything written after 1939 as literature—I’m sure that’s changed since. Anyway, I changed course to Human Sciences. Richard Dawkins had recently published The Selfish Gene and sociobiology was cutting a dash. I actually ended up doing more anthropology and sociology than anything else, but that interest in the biological sciences endured.
The first vaguely arts-related job I had was a research assistant’s unofficial assistant on a program about urban foxes. It was starting at the bottom—literally. My task was to catalogue a huge fridge full of fox shit.
I moved to London, did a Masters degree, and took to the streets with political protest. Street theatre, alternative cabaret, performance poetry, Rock against Racism. I can remember throwing jam tarts at the audience, singing a song about the crisis of capitalism, and at some point wearing a battleship.
I was into music, playing clarinet and sax badly, and writing lyrics about relationships and how much I hated Margaret Thatcher. Fortunately punk meant it was OK to play like crap provided you made a lot of noise.
Begin again. In England I had what we’d now call a ‘slash’ or ‘portfolio career.’ Skit-writer / arts administrator / office cleaner / feral performance artist / community worker / a heap of other jobs I’ve forgotten about.
In Australia I became a playwright. Migration gave me a new life—in writing. It may even have been a necessary prerequisite. My theatre writing grew out of a nomadic outlook and my reality as an immigrant in a nation of immigrants. It thrived on journeys between different cultures and geographies. And the sorrowful and comic baggage that accompanies the soul on these crossings.
Begin again and again. As many times as you need to. Begin somewhere different, take a line from the middle and begin there. Steal a line, cut up a line, repeat a phrase until it changes shape.
Begin with your inner maverick. Embrace contradiction and what Keats called negative capability: ‘that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason … ’
Begin with a rupture, a shift, a wild card, a discontinuity. The quietest place in the world, or a crowded bar in a 5-star hotel …
Let your longings breathe, seek the electronic road less travelled, make a list of silences. Follow your heart’s compass into the unknown …
Begin left-field and see what happens …
Or take provocative competence and begin with that. It’s something jazz musicians do, a deliberate choice to interrupt habit patterns and avoid the temptation to play within their comfort zones.
I’ve written about a monstrous plant and a food court romance. About translation and second generation migrants caught between here and there. I’ve set scripts in country town Australia, in the rubble of postwar Berlin, and inside a computer game version of North Korea.
A current work in progress (Scratchland#) explores the wild frontiers of our urban centres where some of the people, creatures, and things surplus to requirements in our celebrity and consumer-driven society wash up.
Influenced by myriad things from my favourite sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of ‘liquid modernity’ to jazz, to the garbage aesthetics of 1960’s Brazilian radical cinema, the plot, such as it is, devolves into a knot of multiple storylines written and rewritten by multiple voices—not all of which are human.
I began with 2 key musical instruments: bass clarinet and toy piano.
I made a playlist—tracks to listen to while I wrote, or thought about writing, or looked at the clock and wondered if it was time to take a walk and grab a coffee.
I began not by writing but by making 22 collages using things I found or that found me.
To each collage, I put a soundtrack for a spoken voice or voices. Solos and scenarios, soundscapes, snippets of dialogue.
I’m more interested in registers of language than character journeys, plot or certain kinds of narrative plausibility. I’m interested in creating work which speaks to its time. The time being now, and now being splintered, self-reflecting, repetitive and multi-mediated.
‘Stories project possible futures, and those projections affect what comes to be, although this will rarely be the future projected by the story.’ That’s a quote from Arthur W Frank—my second favourite sociologist.
I like beginnings more than middles, questions more than answers, and the journey more than the destination.
Begin, middle and end with ideas. Explore the world—of ideas.
The historian Robert Darnton, in a book with the off-putting (for cat lovers) title The Great Cat Massacre writes about pursuing the richest run of material wherever it may lead.
The history and philosophy of science, especially the biological sciences, politics, musical forms and ideas. I’m often surprised by the extent to which those early passions remain important to me and continue to echo across the landscape of my writing.
So at his point in my career perhaps my ideal job goes something like this: To be a writer in residence in a botanic garden working on a jazz libretto about how much I loathe the Abbot government.